Running from lane 8 is never easy. You’re all the way out in front of the rest of the field and have no clue of your position until the final 100 meters. You can’t see any of your fellow racers for most of the race, which is a huge psychological disadvantage. Running from lane 1 is equally difficult, but at least you can see everyone else that you’re trying to beat. When you’re running from lane 8, you’re running blind, and the only way you can win is to focus on running your race.
That’s exactly what Wayde van Niekerk did Sunday night, smashing Michael Johnson’s seventeen-year world record in the 400 meters with an astonishing 43.03. In a night where Usain Bolt’s electric 100 meter win dominated the headlines, van Niekerk’s performance was just as incredible as Bolt’s unprecedented three straight golds in the premier track and field event. NBC cameras panned to the 100 meter field, huddled around a monitor watching van Niekerk’s race, and their reactions said everything. Bolt himself looked like everyone else watching, hands over his mouth, gasping “Wow!”
Two phases of van Niekerk’s race stood out to me. First, the way he attacked the backstretch. It’s not hard to get out of the blocks well, because everyone’s adrenaline is high, and the sound of the gun almost propels you itself for the first 100 meters. The second 100, though, is where most runners relax and get into the race. Not van Niekerk. He ran his fastest split in this part of the race, clocking a mind-boggling 9.8, to bring his 200 meter total to 20.5, not far from the best in the world in that distance. Simply put, his first 200 meters were blazing.
The second part of the race that astounded me was probably what everyone else noticed: how he finished. If you’ve ever run a 400, you know that the final backstretch is when you question why you would ever do this to yourself. It’s one of the most exhausting feelings you can have in a short race, and it’s where most runners hit the proverbial wall. Not van Niekerk. Just when it looked like he might run out of gas coming down the homestretch, he found another reservoir of energy to propel him through his final strides. Watching the race again, he almost glides into the finish, something you rarely say about a 400 meter runner.
Van Niekerk’s win stunned the track world, as Michael Johnson’s world record seemed out of reach, with Jeremy Wariner’s mid 43’s the only times coming close since. NBC ran a feature before the race on van Niekerk’s relationship with his seventy-four-year-old coach, a grandmotherly figure in South African track and field. The feature mostly focused on what van Niekerk’s recent success meant in light of South Africa’s devastating history of apartheid, not mentioning van Niekerk’s vibrant Christian faith.
If you looked closely, you could see something handwritten on van Niekerk’s rather pedestrian looking spikes (especially compared to Johnson’s famous gold-dusted ones). He held up his spikes as he was being interviewed by the BBC, revealing a prayer he had penned: “Jesus I am all yours, use me.” In interviews after the race, he spoke of his personal faith and how he asked God to help carry him through the race:
“There was no strategy,” he said, smiling. ‘I just went out as hard as I could. I kept thinking someone was going to catch me because I felt so alone. I was thinking, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ And I just drove for the line. Then the first thing I could think to do was to fall to my knees to thank God and to give thanks for having the chance to compete against such great athletes.”
The Westminster Catechism, written in the seventeenth century, famously declares, “The chief end of man is to glorify God.” Psalm 86:12 says, “I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.” Paul in Romans 15:6 adds his prayer for the believers in Rome: “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There are countless ways to give glory to God. In good times and in bad, we can always find something to praise God for, and as we practice gratitude, our hearts expand. Giving God glory, like van Niekerk did after his win Sunday night, declares something to the world, yes, but beyond that it opens our hearts to know God more intimately. That’s why we should give God glory not just when we succeed, but in our greatest failures too. As our lives change, we give glory to God, who never changes. The world needs to see our witness, but so do we.